AGAHOZO SHALOM YOUTH VILLAGE, Rwanda (Reuters) – Vicent de Paul Ruhumuriza was born in Rwanda just a few months before genocide consigned his father to an unknown grave and traumatized his mother so badly she still screams and shakes at any mention of that time.
But, helped by a model of healing dating back to the Holocaust, the 25-year-old has finished his education and blended into a new family, where individuals grieving lost loved ones have rebuilt their lives by caring for each other.
“People should not be driven by the past,” the bearded young man told Reuters this week, as the country prepared to mark a quarter of a century since Hutu militias killed around 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. “I want to grow into someone who will benefit society.”
Seven years ago, Ruhumuriza’s life was on course to become another small tragedy in a nation where every family is touched by grief.
He and his mother lived in poverty. His father’s death in the genocide was a mystery – the only time he ever tried to ask about it, his mother had a breakdown.
“Other people … told how she was beaten, how she was tortured, got raped,” he said. “She became like a mad person. She got traumatized.”
Then, in 2014, just as Ruhumuriza was about to drop out, his school got in touch with the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village, whose Hebrew-Kinyarwandan name translates as “the place where tears are dried”.
The village was set up in 2008 by a South African-born lawyer, Anne Heyman, who had worked in the United States. Heyman and her husband raised more than $12 million to help care for families ripped apart by the genocide, taking their model from Israel’s Youth Villages, which created new families for children whose parents had died in the Holocaust.
Rwanda’s genocide, sparked by the assassination of the president, lasted around 100 days and stopped after rebels fought their way to the capital, led by Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s current ruler.
More than 95,000 children were orphaned, the United Nations estimates, and around 300,000 children were killed. For some of the survivors, Heyman’s village offered healing and purpose.
“Having 15 children around you can calling you Mama, and you helping them to conquer their past, that is a great contribution to the nation,” said Emeritha Mukarusagara, a slender, bespectacled 57-year-old with long braids who became a foster mother after being widowed in the genocide.
She spent months hidden by a neighbour, heavily pregnant, terrified and filled with grief for her murdered husband. She keeps his picture on her phone but still cannot discuss his death.
Since then, she has fostered dozens of vulnerable children, including Ruhumuriza, who needed families.
A shy teenager, he arrived into a large, boisterous community where children live 15 to a house, watched over by a strict but loving foster parent they are all encouraged to call Mama. It was strange to call another woman Mama, he said. It was even stranger to have a brother. He liked it.
Ruhumuriza threw himself into his studies, becoming the school president, learning about Steve Jobs, and forming a deep bond with his foster mother. When he graduated and found a job in the construction industry, and a steady paycheck, he asked her what he should do with it.
Go home, she said. Build a house for the lonely woman who gave birth to you.
“Now my mother lives in the house I built,” he said proudly. “Mama Emeritha is one of my cornerstones … she is one of the best advisors I have.”
Ruhumuriza is one of more 850 children who has passed through the village’s 26 houses. But although the children of the genocide have grown up, many more come seeking refuge: those orphaned by accidents and disease. Refugees from Burundi. Children at risk of abuse.
Ruhumuriza, which was also the name of Mukarusagara’s murdered husband, has a special place in his foster mother’s heart.
“Every time I saw him, I remembered my dead husband. He was as kind as my husband,” she said with a sigh.
“At his wedding party, I will put on the best attire I have and sit next to his mother.”